December 20, 2007

'Tis the Season

St. Patrick's Cathedral crucifixes made in China by women under terrible conditions.

St. Patrick's pulls crucifixes.

"Kehinde's 'Paintings' might as well be ink jet prints, or a pair of air jordans. They are made in China from images that he emails to the same website or "atelier" your grandma does when she wants last years christmas card translated into a "real official" oil painting. Sure believe the art in america[sic] from a few years ago that says he has assistants 'only paint the backgrounds, but he of course saves the figures for himself' if you want... But if you would just open your eyes for a second you would realize that he is just another oppurtunist, if anything worse since he attempts to present himself as genuine, which itself is funny since entire tomes could be written on how ironic it is that he employs the new sweatshop labor to expose the horrors oh[sic] the old...

But there's one question none of you are capable of asking, why didn't he just do this in the first place? It would have been a conceptual attempt worth debating, but instead he just goes back to fooling all the 'whities' with his blackness."

Posted by "Bam" on

December 6, 2007

The Evil Twin Narrative

A few weeks ago a young curator asked my opinion on how one determines artwork worthy of purchase. Although the context of our conversation concerned informed art collecting, I realized this week after re-reading Suzi Gablik’s “Pluralism: The Tyranny of Freedom” that a ubiquitous subjectivity pervades both collecting and exhibiting art. My personal response to her question on the nature of collectable art is undoubtedly influenced by my own judgments of taste. However, and this thought was provoked by the Gablik essay, should art making (and art collecting) adhere to any art historical narrative?

A progressive narrative of art is especially relevant to Modernism. One can trace a solidly theoretical and linear history, proceeding from Impressionism to Post-Impressionism, from Suprematism to Abstract Expressionism. Yet it is right around 1956 that the Modernist narrative appears to grind to a halt as Pop Art interrupts the grand narrative of art as a progressive development of the individual artist’s “self-expression.”(1)

Supplanting personal embodiments and exultations of self-expression with the wholesale “borrowing” of appropriated media images, Pop Art used media reproductions of mass culture as both reference point and signifier for the prevailing social and cultural conditions. As an art movement or style, Pop might easily be cast as “postmodern,” as its approach to content had less to do with the artist’s individual need to express the self and more to do with the circulation of the image. Later, this was enthusiastically supported by Guy Debord’s ideas of image as spectacle, replacing the “authentic” social lives of individuals with “social relation[s] among people, mediated by images.”(2)

It may be pure conjecture but an alternate and simultaneous postmodernist narrative might be traced from Pop Art through the photo-text works of the 1970s to full-bloom Appropriation by the 1980s. We might also include “post-sculptural” and “simulationist” artists like Jorge Pardo, Franz West, Haim Steinbach and R. M. Fisher, who either transform diverse commodity objects into new “exhibition value” or create their own commodity objects that intentionally blur distinctions between art and design.

If we return to the central question – should art making adhere to art historical narratives – we can see that other art historical narratives are thus running simultaneously. Assuming that it matters, how then do we determine which narrative has credence, value and authenticity?

If we refer to the Gablik essay, we can see that in 1984 she had a problem with postmodernism’s eclecticism and its appropriation of prior art historical models. She criticizes postmodernism’s skillful assimilation of “all forms of style and genre,” and presents postmodernism as being “tolerant of multiplicity and conflicting values.”(3) However, these precepts of postmodernism, and as a proposed postmodernist art historical narrative, might also be seen as achievements and strengths, instead of failures and weaknesses.

For example, one of the ideas of post-structural linguistics was the suspicion of the binary. Clear-cut distinctions between opposites, i.e., true and false, were questioned through explorations of meaning within language. This aversion to binaries helped establish the tolerance for multiplicity and “conflicting values” in language, and were also empowering to postmodern artists. Which would help explain postmodernism’s eclecticism as the “tendency in architecture and the decorative arts to mix various historical styles with modern elements with the aim of combining the virtues of many styles or increasing allusive content.”(4)

The current situation in visual arts would suggest that a plurality of visual styles is not only rampant but encouraged by today’s art market. Figurative art, abstraction, realism, conceptualism, minimalism, new media, installation and video are equally valued, exhibited and collected. The socio-economic institutional triumvirate of critic-gallery-collector positions artists within the various styles for multiple validations regardless of art theoretical conflicts.

Gablik suggests that pluralism had potential: “In many ways the abandonment of ideology in favor of a pluralist situation seems to offer colossal and unparalleled opportunities for every kind of artistic expression; it would seem, moreover, to be a liberating release from intolerant exclusiveness and from the avant-garde imperative of continual innovation.”(5) Thus, the Modernist tropes of exclusivity and elitism would be eliminated in the pluralist world of “overoptioned” styles. Yet she argues that this would still “threaten our art with the imprint of meaninglessness.”(6)

Critics of postmodernist theory often charge it with using double-talk that represents the question of meaning as a belief in “meaninglessness.” On the contrary, the postmodern definition of meaning as being “infinitely deferred” has the ultimate fullness of possibility, with a multiplicity of meanings opening all systems of representation (including art) to infinite meanings.

Our proposed postmodernist alternative to the modernist one (call it the “evil twin” narrative) might reveal Gablik’s reluctance to recognize the importance of conceptual art when she states: “Nearly all art today is the product of energies freed from direct social purpose or obligation.”(7) Gablik forgets that the original conceptual art of the 1970s sought a fully engaged social “use value” for their art. Kosuth, Lewitt, Weiner and others refused to continue making precious objects as commodities, choosing instead to imbue their art with definition, idea and language. Indeed, the relationships of art to language (and to the world of commodity production) are counter to the Modernist ideology of the spirit. As avant-gardian themes, these prefigure conceptual art and yet have become our postmodernist tropes.


1. Coincidentally, Jackson Pollock and James Dean were killed in car crashes that year (September ’55 to August ’56) and Charlie Parker overdosed on heroin six months earlier (March ’55).

2. Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle”, Black and Red, 1967, 7.

3. Gablik, Suzi. Has Modernism Failed?, New York, 1984, 73.


5. Op. cit., 75.

6. Op. cit., 75.

7. Op. cit., 74.

November 29, 2007

Neo Flux

“The formalist project in geometry is discredited. It no longer seems possible to explore form as form (in the shape of geometry), as it did to the Constructivists and Neo-Plasticists, nor to empty geometric form of its signifying function, as the Minimalists proposed. To some extent, the viability of these formalist ideas has simply atrophied with time. They have also been distorted and bent to conform to the bourgeois idealism of generations of academically-minded geometric classicists. But the crisis besetting geometric art for the last two decades can also be viewed as characteristic of the crises that have beset formalisms of all kinds in the postwar era: those that precipitated the transition from literary formalism to structuralism and from structuralism to the post-structuralist re-examinations that have taken place in the work of such figures as Barthes and Foucault . . . the crisis of geometry is a crisis of the signified. It no longer seems possible to accept geometric form as either transcendental order, detached signifier, or as the basic gestalt of visual perception (as did Arnheim). We are launched instead into a structuralist search for the veiled signifieds that the geometric sign may yield.”(1)

One could not find a better post-structuralist champion of geometric form than Peter Halley. In 1984, with appropriation in full swing and chants of “painting is dead” in the air, Halley published his essay “The Crisis in Geometry” in Arts Magazine and attempted a vital resuscitation of abstract painting. He denied the Formalist mantra of “geometry’s neutrality” and Minimalism’s achievement of an “intellectual neutrality,”(2) and the results, including Halley’s own paintings, were dubbed Neo-Geo. Whether he revived our interest in form or geometry as a “search for the veiled signifieds” will have to stand a further test of time. Meanwhile, we can quibble with his casual dismissal of Minimalism with regard to geometric form and its intellectual neutrality.

Halley proposed that a “reinterpretation” of geometric form (inspired by his readings of Foucault and Baudrillard) require us to reconsider the “curious claim” of the Minimalists that “geometry constituted neutral form.”(3) Halley’s view is that the “crisis in geometry” begins with Minimal artists positioning their work as intellectually “neutral.” However, Foucault notwithstanding, at this point in his essay Halley drops his line of reasoning on Minimalism’s putative “intellectual neutrality” and proceeds to link Minimalism’s use of industrial production techniques to the capitalist agenda. Before we get to that, a closer reading of Halley’s words might help us to understand his interpretation of Minimalism’s “intellectual neutrality.”

The Minimalists were far from being intellectually neutral. In fact, they were exceedingly intellectual, some would even say, “to a fault.” Arnheim’s Art and Visual Perception was no doubt on their bookshelves, as were Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception and Ehrenzweig’s The Hidden Order of Art. The Minimalists’ ravenous interest in outside fields of knowledge fueled their thought and their work, paving further explorations by future artists using theories and methodologies outside the limited purvey of visuality.

The Minimalists presented their objects as a visual and psychological experience that began with the perception of the object’s (geometric) form. Inspired by theories such as Arnheim’s, they used essential forms, i.e., the cube, to effectively convey the gestalt (the wholeness) of the object and its structure in totality. This opened up the visual experience of the object to additional “theatrical” readings (4) within the context of the site and necessitated a more rigorous perceptual and intellectual experience for the viewer.(5)

Halley’s characterization of Minimalism as flawed theory couched in “rhetoric” must be read as a non sequitur because in his next two sentences he discounts the “conscious intents [sic] of its creators” and says that Minimalism’s use of industrial fabrication constitutes an ideology: “Minimalism first ideologically linked geometry to the material production of contemporary industry by employing industrial materials and finishes without endorsing them (as the Bauhaus did).”(6)

We can probably accept that Donald Judd’s use of sub-contracted fabricators to make his sculptures demonstrates Judd’s acquiescence to the “material production” of industry. Thus, the ideology of material production and the capitalist order become Halley’s “veiled signifieds” coded within Judd’s plywood, sheet metal and Plexiglas boxes. However, it is well-known that Judd (and Andre, Flavin and Morris) adored industrial materials – is their adulation not an endorsement?

There is not enough time to fuss properly with Halley’s other paragraphs but perhaps one more glaring citation taken out of context should be noted. In discussing the “circularity” of the sign, Halley quotes some Baudrillard (“ . . . a simulacrum, never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference”) yet neglects the full context of that quoted passage:

“Thus perhaps at stake has always been the murderous capacity of images, murderers of the real, murderers of their own model as the Byzantine icons could murder the divine identity. To this murderous capacity is opposed the dialectical capacity of representations as a visible and intelligible mediation of the Real. All of Western faith and good faith was engaged in this wager on representation: that a sign could refer to the depth of meaning, that a sign could exchange for meaning and that something could guarantee this exchange - God, of course. But what if God himself can be simulated, that is to say, reduced to the signs which attest his existence? Then the whole system becomes weightless, it is no longer anything but a gigantic simulacrum - not unreal, but a simulacrum, never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference.”(7)

Knowing that Baudrillard invoked the Supreme Being in his dissection of the “capacity of representations,” Halley’s conception of the sign as “characteristic of meaning in contemporary society” becomes somewhat incomprehensible.(8) Is Halley proposing that one of the “veiled signifieds” of geometric form might include the ultimate transcendental signified?

All quite intellectually taxing, of course, but we might find some closure by returning to Arnheim in one of his last interviews (at the ripe old age of 97):

“The essence of an image is its ability to convey meaning through sensory experience. Signs and language are established conceptual modifiers; they are the outer shells of actual meaning. We have to realize that perception organizes the forms that it receives as optical projections in the eye. Without form an image cannot carry a visual message into consciousness. Thus it is the organized forms that deliver the visual concept that makes an image legible, not conventionally established signs.”(9)

In this statement by possibly the most influential theorist for Minimalism may be a rebuttal to Halley’s critique of geometric form. It bears repeating: “It is the organized forms that deliver the visual concept that makes an image legible.” That is, the legibility (or meaning) of an object proceeds first from its elemental form perceived through our senses. Granted, our legibility may be conditioned by our knowledge of extraneous text, for example, Halley’s own essays about his painting in relation to art history. However, the object (image, sign or photograph) maintains its fundamental essence (or gestalt) based on its denotative form. This may be ignored, superseded or exaggerated through the “circularity” of meanings based on the supplemental knowledge we ascribe to the object but the primary signified of a geometric form exists independently of any connotative meaning we might attribute to it. Red bars do not a prison make.

Image: Red Bars (2007) © Copyright by Peter Halley.


1. Halley, Peter. "The Crisis in Geometry," Arts Magazine, New York, Vol. 58, No. 10, June 1984.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Minimalist Theater, September 28, 2006.

5. For more on the post-sculptural, see Rosalind Krauss’ “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” in Postmodern Culture, London, 1985, pp. 31-42.

6. Op. cit.

7. Baudrillard, Jean. "The Evil Demon of Images and the Precession of Simulacra" in Postmodernism: A Reader, New York, 1993, 194.

8. Op. cit.

9. Grundmann, Uta. "The Intelligence of Vision: An Interview with Rudolf Arnheim", Cabinet Magazine, Issue 2, Spring 2001.

November 15, 2007

Beware the Supplement

Administrator's note: Due to pressing matters requiring urgent attention I am republishing this post from November 2006.

Much of contemporary art needs the supplement of theory to be approached, yet often a particular critical reading of an artist is rendered inaccurate by its theoretical position. Singaporean essayist Lee Weng Choy questions the privileging of “only one reading” of an artist’s work and suggests that it is the contradictions in artwork that “make it possible to speak to the work critically in the first place.”(1) I propose that even contradictions within a misguided critique of an artist can open the possibility of a different reading under close scrutiny. If we are to expand the discourse on contemporary art theory, we must question previously held yet problematic beliefs, always at the ready to re-write art history with supplemental critiques based on more stringent or diverse critical perspectives, especially points of view that counteract accepted and published critical positions.

For instance, one accepted critical perception on the performance art of Paul McCarthy has to do with the desublimation of masculinity and this will serve to demonstrate the inherent weakness within theoretical supplements that function as a validated art historic assessment but may possess misrepresentations that have not been fully explored.

According to this exemplary theory, McCarthy’s effort “to expose that which patriarchal culture represses in order to reverse the sublimatory effects of civilization” has resulted in performances of orgiastic frenzy with the artist simulating castration, sexual abuse, menstruation and childbirth.(2) Using Freud’s psychoanalytic theories, including castration anxiety, this position maintains that McCarthy “desublimates masculinity” by “reversing the processes of sublimation and repression.”(3)

While this critical position certainly exhibits scholarly research, there is the simple contradiction of McCarthy’s performances, which manifest an insistent and embodied phallocracy. In actuality, McCarthy’s work does not “reverse” sublimation as much as reinforce the patriarchal hierarchy, investing his stereotypically abject actions with an aggressive sexuality that supports male dominance over women. One might find it additionally disturbing and contradictory that McCarthy’s putative desublimation of masculinity has been couched within feminist frameworks, i.e., masculinity as “fundamentally dependent on that which it must exclude.”(4)

Judith Butler has argued that “gender is a cultural meaning that is ascribed to human bodies” and “does not derive naturally from the biological sex of the individual.”(5) However, McCarthy’s performances are wholly dependent upon the biological sex of his body (male) and the workable frisson his transgender “play” provokes. In Sailor’s Meat (1975), McCarthy wears a wig (female) while engaging in intercourse with a pile of meat; in Bossy Burger (1991), he plays chef (woman’s work?) while fornicating with various holes and doors in the set; in Heidi (1992), McCarthy plays Grandfather and penetrates a knothole while voyeuristically spying on Heidi (incest?). All of these acts are staged within the parameters of masculine biological function, based on gender identification defined by genitalia. McCarthy does not desublimate the “prohibitory apparatus of culture”(6); he denies it as a workable definition of gender, preferring instead to rely on the semiotics of essentialist difference. This kind of contradiction in a critique of an artist absolutely requires our attentiveness to the nuances within the supplemental discourse.

McCarthy’s work obviously begs for a thorough reading, possibly based on the “frustration experienced under the phallocentric order,”(7) yet it is not only male artists who have been misrepresented in the theoretical supplements. The paintings of Marilyn Minter have been viewed for some time as recalling “Jacques Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage, in which our identities are built around the desire to attain the whole and unified body we saw in the mirror as infants.”(8) True, Minter’s paintings do typically depict fragmented feminine form as body parts (feet in high-heels, toothy-mouths biting pearl necklaces) but this would seem to recast the erotic object of film theory as a static and fragmented fetish, rather than propose a longing for a unified perfection of form. Any functional display of women in a fragmented, objectified image can also be interpreted as the furtherance of the phallocentric “symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies[sp] and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.”(9)


1. Lee Weng Choy, Authenticity, Reflexivity, and Spectacle in Theory in Contemporary Art since 1985, Z. Kocur and S. Leung, (eds.), Oxford, 2005, 251.

2. Amelia Jones, "Paul McCarthy’s Inside Out Body and the Desublimation of Masculinity" in Paul McCarthy [exhibition catalog of Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art], New York, 2000, 126.

3. Ibid., 127-128.

4. Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex, New York, 1993, 51-52.

5. David Macey, Dictionary of Critical Theory, London, 2000, 52.

6. Jones: 128.

7. Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema", originally published in Screen 16:3, Autumn 1975, 7.

8. Joshua Shirkey, New Work: Marilyn Minter [exhibition brochure of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art], 2005.

9. Mulvey: 7.

November 9, 2007

(In)Appropriate Behavior

If the process of appropriation has its roots in history, its narrative here will begin with the readymade, which represents its first conceptualized manifestation, considered in relation to the history of art. When Duchamp exhibits a manufactured object (a bottle rack, a urinal, a snow shovel) as a work of the mind, he shifts the problematic of the “creative process,” emphasizing the artist’s gaze brought to bear on an object instead of manual skill. He asserts that the act of choosing is enough to establish the artistic process, just as the act of fabricating, painting, or sculpting does: to give a new idea to an object is already production. Duchamp thereby completes the definition of the term creation: to create is to insert an object into a new scenario, to consider it a character in a narrative.(1)

Thus, Nicolas Bourriaud joins the growing legions of critics who continue to solidify Duchamp’s impact on art, especially conceptual art, nearly 100 years after his first readymades appeared. Bourriaud also neatly unpacks a key theoretical component of appropriation: the insertion of an object into a new scenario “relocates” both the object and its context. It is this equivalence of “choosing” and “fabricating” that echoes an idea put forth by Walter Benjamin, that artistic skill was “incidental” to the “exhibition value” of art objects.(2) Benjamin becomes even more relevant when we consider photography in relation to appropriation but first let us look at the artistic practice of Richard Pettibone and Sturtevant (“those eternal copyists”).

The more obsessive of the two painters is Pettibone. His miniscule copies of iconic artworks by Brancusi, Duchamp, Ellsworth Kelly, Barnett Newman, Ed Ruscha, Frank Stella and Warhol are meticulous beyond belief, often painted at the “exact size of their reproductions in Artforum.”(3) If we were to critique the appropriationist as a throw-back to the older tradition of developing one’s skill as a painter through “copying” the iconic artworks of the masters, then we might judge Pettibone guilty as charged. Yet the scale of his copies ought to at least introduce the possibility that his real concern might be the original “site” of the reproductions within the pages of the art magazine. As an institution, the art magazine provides authentication through reproduction, as if to say, “This is art because we reproduced it and reviewed it.” We might also speculate upon possible connections between Pettibone’s magazine-scaled images with Dan Graham’s exploration of “site” in his photo-text piece, Homes for America, of 1965. Particularly with regard to Graham’s institutional critique of art magazines and their association to reproduction, as “the work shown in galleries depends on photographic reproduction for its value in the media.”(4)

The recalcitrant Sturtevant is a “tougher” nut to crack. Exasperatingly, she denies that she “appropriates” the work of others: “The brutal truth of the work is that it is not copying.”(5) This could clearly be read as defensive, perhaps even evasive. Truly, if Sturtevant’s work is “an apparent content being denied”(6) then its essence should be a disavowal of originality and authenticity. However, making or, more accurately, “taking” an existing artwork and calling it your own does not negate the original artist’s work. If she is evincing her work as a denial of authenticity in general, it is difficult to recognize in the face of her obsessive attention to details within the individual “copies.” We might suspend our disbelief in the face of clever theorizing, however, Sturtevant’s smoke-screen becomes even more cloying when she describes her own obsessive craftsmanship:

“Photographs are not taken and catalogues used only to check size and scale. The work is done predominantly from memory, using the same techniques [as the artists in question], making the same errors and thus coming out in the same place.”(7)

Hard to believe? It is intriguing that Sturtevant introduces the catalogue as a reference point “to check,” and yet she emphasizes her “memory” of the appropriated image as to how the work is “done.” Again, like Pettibone, this is misrecognition of the originary power of appropriation as proposed by Duchamp, and mistakenly revalues the “hand of the artist” as the qualifier of “what makes good art.”

Returning to photography and Benjamin’s thoughts on “mechanical reproduction,” we can see that the mechanics of reproduction virtually guarantee a loss of that mystical “aura” that inhabits an original artwork. Continued repetition of an image through the process of photography eventually “empties” an image of meaning and makes photography the ideal vehicle for appropriation, as Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince and Louise Lawler have discovered. Photography’s establishment of a false “presence” through reproduction clearly reinforces photography’s preference as the “medium” of choice for artists who intend to investigate the “absence” of originality in either artworks or art itself.

Image: Four Jackies (After Warhol), © Copyright by Richard Pettibone.


1. Bourriaud, Nicolas. Postproduction: Culture as Screenplay, New York, 2000, 19

2. Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations, New York, 1969, 225.

3. Princenthal, Nancy. “Look Again: Surveying Richard Pettibone,” Art in America, March 2006, 135.

4. Graham, Dan. “My Works for Magazine Pages: A History of Conceptual Art,” Dan Graham, Perth, 1985, 13.

5. Princenthal, Nancy. “The Other Truth,” Art in America, December 2005, 103.

6. Blistene, Bernard. “Label Elaine,” The Brutal Truth, Frankfurt, 2004, 37.

7. Hainley, Bruce. “Erase and Rewind,” Frieze 53, June-August 2000, 85.

November 2, 2007

Dolls Without Nipples

Unlike previous female “body artists” (Carolee Schneemann, Ana Mendieta, Hannah Wilke), Vanessa Beecroft does not use her own body in her art but prefers using other female bodies for her work. Since 1993, Beecroft has presented various self-initialed and numbered tableau as “performances.” These notably involve nude or near-nude models and feature accessorized fashion. Furthermore, the models’ “actions” are controlled by Beecroft’s “orders,” i.e., “do not move; do not talk, do not interact with the audience.” There are a number of ways to begin a discussion of Beecroft’s work but the emphasized components of nude femininity coupled with fragmentary and fetisihized fashion might raise one particular question: do some female artists re-enforce male objectification of women’s bodies through their sexualized imagery?

In many of Beecroft’s performances the models wear high-fashion clothing such as the Gucci bikinis in VB35. This was intensely juxtaposed with a few completely naked models, all of whom stood for hours in the Guggenheim’s rotunda. Beecroft’s blatant exploitation of the nudity clearly suggested that jaded viewing was required by museum visitors, both male and female alike.

Feminist theorists influenced by psychoanalysis have defined “the gaze” as active (male) and passive (female). As a simple binary, this theory has a definite structure that supports male-dominance. The words of Laura Mulvey may as well be describing one of Beecroft’s performances in this excerpt:

“The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to striptease, from Zeigfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire.”(1)

If we “read” Beecroft through Mulvey’s theories of “the gaze” then Beecroft’s use of “erotic spectacle” perhaps becomes clearer and her re-affirmation of those male and female roles is evident: her “exhibitionist” models are passive objects presented for the controlling and objectifying “male gaze.”

This is far from being a subtle use of nudity, however, as one reviewer noted that Beecroft's fetishized fashion might have a suspicious intent:

“Beecroft treats her girls rather like pillars, requiring them to stand at attention for the long pointless hours of any one of her exhibitions. And although the girls may be spared the discomfort of a pediment on their heads, really Beecroft just redistributes the weight, since the girls are required to wear high heels. This has the effect of minimizing the area of surface contact between the model and the ground, literally reducing the plane of the foot to two points (a toe and a heel), thus making it more difficult for a girl to support her own bodyweight.”(2)

It must be stressed that Beecroft did not invent the high-heel shoe yet she conspires to use its hideous design to virtually cripple her females. Undoubtedly, if a male artist had presented the same tableau he would have been charged with cruelty to women. Yet Beecroft has been given a “pass” on her use of high-fashion heels on bikini-clad or nude women.

We should also note that the feminine archetype Beecroft prefers is the incessant high-fashion vision of “perfection.” Beecroft's models are extreme ectomorphs – tall and thin with long limbs – who represent a body type virtually unobtainable for most women. It might be argued that Beecroft’s adulation of this privileged archetypal female body was empowering to women but we cannot ignore its authentication of female erotic objects for male “phantasy.”

Dominance through image or control is at the root of Beecroft’s work. It is no accident that in her early tableau the models were arrayed in a phalanx like soldiers ready for the commands of the general. What is Beecroft’s strategy? Is she subversively “taking back” the objectified female body to assert feminine autonomy? This would be an easy response for the women artists who used their own nakedness in their performances. Instead, Beecroft uses other naked women as her medium yet seems uncomfortable with their nudity: “I’m ashamed of the nude body myself, and so I throw it in the face of people.”(3)

Marina Bolmini may represent the wholesale acceptance of female “phantasy” body-type as the “plaything” of men. Her digital “alter ego” is replicated in multiples in her “Play with me” series and we recognize Bolmini’s features in her virtual females. Her work shows a “new media” influence of video gaming and the art world legitimacy of feminist art figure references (Beecroft and Cindy Sherman are mimicked). However, her multiple nudes can also be imagined as literal simulacra of glossy skin-mag “puppet” objects for a “determining male gaze:”

“The manikins[sic] don’t want to be what they represent or replace: ‘I found a doll without nipples,’ shouts the artist excited by her creative gains. ‘I think it’s better suited for Beecrofts!’ It’s a clarifying statement about an operation which isn’t a ‘copying’ but an exasperation of the real protagonist’s tensions, artists or their works, to which Bolmini gives voice, hers. The puppet’s body is also her own body, but again it isn’t precisely represented, but it is standardized and optimized in order to be harmoniously adapted to the digitalized world round them.”(4)

If Bolmini represents a disturbing and irresponsible deployment of empty spectacle and fetishized feminine accoutrements, then she joins Beecroft in a post-feminist denial of gains made by 1970s era women artists. Their work is vapid in its passive acceptance of the patriarchal social coding without a critical questioning of the underlying implications for women artists. It is work that irrefutably continues the perpetuation of male-dominance in visuality through its use of combined ideologies of advertising, image manipulation and fashion fetishization.

Image: © Copyright by Marina Bolmini.

1. Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16.3, Autumn 1975, pp. 6-18.


3. Wallace, Susan. “The Life and Art of Vanessa Beecroft”,, 2002.

4. Giardino, Lucia. “Marina Bolmini in Play With Me”, Galleria Marconi.

October 25, 2007


Two recent art items signal an intriguing possibility of a “re-positioning” by both artists and critics which may also portend a groundswell of reassessment in art discourse.

A brief article on sculptor Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth (in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall through April 6, 2008) described an installation that “begins as a hairline crack in the concrete floor of the building, then widens and deepens as it snakes across the room.” In attempting to clarify the “mystery” of her 548 foot-long work, Salcedo denies the importance of her work’s process, preferring instead to stress her interpretation of it: “What is important is the meaning of the piece. The making of it is not important.”(1)

Which struck me as a rather broad dismissal of the process of artmaking and a disingenuous presumption by Salcedo concerning an artwork’s “meaning.”

Salcedo is also quoted as saying the crevice “represents borders, the experience of immigrants, the experience of segregation, the experience of racial hatred.”(2)

Yet in her attempt to privilege her meaning for the work Salcedo effectively conditions alternative responses to it by viewers and art critics. This only serves to negate differing views and reviews of the artwork.

For example, one astute reviewer offered a different perspective on Shibboleth through a rewarding architectural reading:

“By making the floor the principal focus of her project, Salcedo shifts the perception of the Turbine Hall's iconic architecture and subtly subverts its monumentality and aspirations towards grandeur. Questions are raised about how we read architecture and the values it enshrines, and by extension the ideological foundations on which western notions of modernity are built. These notions are rooted in Enlightenment ideas of nationhood, progress and civilization.”(3)

Not surprisingly, this has less to do with “racial hatred.” So which is the authentic meaning for the piece? Certainly the “determinate mode” of Salcedo’s interpretation for her work only serves to devalue the viewing experience of others. As ever (at least since 1977) in our PoMo world:

“The question of meaning is constantly to be referred to the social and psychic formations of the author/reader [Administrator’s note: as well as 'artist/viewer.'], formations existentially simultaneous and co-extensive but theorized in separate discourses.”(4)

Another earlier essay regarded interpretation as a way to shackle challenging art:

“In most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the world of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.”(5)

Art is a representation that exceeds specific interpretations and restrictions on multiple “readings.” For artists to operate otherwise and prescribe their “correct” interpretations for a work and then force-feed that meaning on viewers, to tell them what they can feel or think about a piece, only ultimately diminishes its potency. “To interpret is to impoverish.”(6)

And this is why I see Salcedo’s supplemental and published words about her Tate installation as a distinctly “reactionary” re-positioning by an artist in a futile yet dangerous attempt to control meaning in the minds of the viewers. A lost cause at best and a misguided refusal to acknowledge the considerable strengths gained through an appreciation of art’s multiplicity of meanings.

Across the pond, a New York art critic took aim at “Warhol’s children.” In her Art In America review of another mammoth installation (Dash Snow and Dan Colen 's Nest at Deitch Projects) Faye Hirsch courageously re-assesses their “worth” and exacts a severe re-appraisal of the young bohemians. Nest is a recreation of one of Snow and Colen’s vandalized hotel rooms that features 2,000 shredded NYC telephone books, graffiti and school-boy drawings of varying obscenity. Her brutal yet articulate review is nothing less than a bravado re-positioning of the purpose of art criticism itself. Here is a critic not afraid to take a stand, to consider current work in the shadow of its predecessors and to distinguish the quality between then and now:

“Make no mistake: however ‘self-taught’ he [Snow] might be, it stretches credulity to believe that he, and/or Colen (a RISD alum), do not know, if only by osmosis, Walter de Maria’s SoHo 'Earth Room' (to which ‘Nest” has been compared), Julian Schnabel (whose giant canvases with scrawled texts come to mind), Jean-Michel Basquiat or Richard Prince’s jokes. Is it worth saying quotation – even inadvertent – is not enough?”(7)

This is daring and necessary art criticism and I applaud it and other recent reviews. These are new critical voices that have re-positioned themselves positively within art discourse as critics who will not be “numbed by the art world’s relentless trade in sophomoric genius.”(8)

Image: Earth Room; © Copyright by Walter De Maria and The Dia Foundation.


1. Salcedo causes a rift at Tate Modern, Guardian Unlimited, Oct. 8, 2007

2. Ibid.


4. Burgin, Victor. “Looking at Photographs” in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, (P. Selz, K. Stiles, eds.) Berkeley, 1996, 854.

5. Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation and Other Essays, New York, 1966, 9.

6. Ibid., 8.

7. Hirsch, Faye. “Dash Snow and Dan Colen at Deitch”, Art in America, October 2007, 204.

8. Ibid.

October 18, 2007

Chris's Burden

The threat of violence and destruction is latent in much of Chris Burden’s early performance art and helped cast him as Southern California’s “bad boy” artist in the 1970s. Working out of his Venice studio, Chris had himself shot with a .22 rifle, nailed to a Volkswagen roof, fired a pistol at an airliner, tried to “breathe” underwater, crossed two “hot” electric wires at his chest (above) and assaulted a television journalist by holding a knife to her throat.(1)

These are difficult performance art pieces that Burden was keen to present as “sculptures.” They have a mythic presence in “body art” yet he has grown reticent to talk about them as he aged, apparently seeking to distance himself from his destructive early work. His evolving sculptural process began to explore the physics of stress and energy (Samson and Big Wheel) with a whimsical fascination with the “gee whiz” of science. Yet the legacy of Burden’s body art assured that the possibility of imminent and unpredictable violence would remain inherent in the work of succeeding generations of art students “attempting to emulate the transgressive character of Burden’s early work”(2) and contemporary artists like John Bock and Matthew Barney.

In his somewhat lackluster introduction to what he himself refers to as a “haphazard selection of works” (Documentation of Selected Works 1971-74), Burden apologizes for the lack of effective documentation of some of the pieces; either the performances “don’t lend themselves to being filmed” or “somebody forgot to push the button.” This only helped to create their mystique, of course, since the eye-witness verbal accounts have naturally evolved to mythology over the years.

The grainy imagery that did survive presents a cinéma-vérité that is alternately claustrophobic or obsessive, showing a leaner, sinewy version of Burden engaged in “the psychological experience of danger, pain, and physical risk.”(3) Throughout his narration, Burden seems at a loss to validate his work and its impact on performance art. His inarticulateness on this point may have been calculated to further enhance his 1970s persona. Yet his mature position on the “transgressive” and dangerous threat of contemporary performance art was revealed in his letter of resignation to UCLA in 2005 over an incident involving art student Joseph Deutch’s apparent use of “gunplay” as art.(4)

In a disingenuous attempt to “bracket” the art school environment from the “real world” of art practice, Burden said that “The university is a group of people who agree to be civilized. If the student wanted to rent a studio and play Russian roulette and call it art, then art history will decide.”(5)

This comment by Burden reveals his inner conflict regarding his earlier performance art’s steady controversial influence on the succeeding generations of artists. From that same New York Times article-interview:

“Mr. Burden also said he believed his early performance pieces had influenced Mr. Deutch. ‘I'm sure the student was referencing the work I did,’ he said. ‘He was also trying to co-opt and demean it and parody it.’”(6)

Yet it is not productive for the discourse surrounding performance art for Burden to have it both ways. On one hand, he can accept that his earlier work has been “co-opted” and engage in productive discussions about its “parody” by the younger generation of artists. Or, he can withdraw his presence entirely, seeking absolution from the continued controversies surrounding performance art.

It is unfortunate that Burden has evidently chosen to retreat from the discourse by resigning from UCLA and refusing further interactions concerning the body art model that he is partially responsible for developing. For without a continued and viable dialogue about the on-going use of violence and destruction in body art, its practice as an art form remains mired in doubt and confusion tainted by media sensationalism.

Image: © Copyright by Chris Burden.

1. “In 1972, Phyllis Lutjeans, a friend who hosted a cable TV show, invited Burden on the program. Without warning — in a performance he dubbed ‘TV Hijack’ — he held her at knifepoint for several minutes. ‘When Chris put the knife at my throat, I was absolutely terrified,’ Lutjeans recalled for The [LA] Times 20 years later. ‘I thought, 'This guy's psychotic.'”

2. Kastner, Jeffrey. “Gun Shy”,, Jan. 20, 2005.


4. Hontz, Jenny. “Gunplay, as Art, Sets Off a Debate”, The New York Times, Feb. 5, 2005.

5. Op. cit.

6. Op. cit.

October 11, 2007

Ma Kelly's Boy

A provocative and seminal artwork, Mary Kelly’s Post Partum Document (1973-1979) is the archetype for the consideration of femininity defined through theory. Kelly’s clear appreciation for Jacques Lacan’s views on the social construction of subjectivity provides remarkable evidence of one female artist’s emergence from the traditional methodologies of her interpretive field - art – and her search for other possibilities of approach to art.

An expansion of the “work” across 139 objects, drawings, texts and graphs, PPD is conceptual in its scope by challenging accepted ideas concerning the “object.” Kelly’s time-based project records her son’s entry into the social order at the same time that it disrupts the artwork as singular entity. Taking her cue from linguistic theories (via Lacan) Kelly proposed that femininity is defined through its representational differences instead of essential biological differences between the sexes.(1)

Focusing on motherhood as under-recognized labor, PPD would eventually be a six-part installation which visualized Kelly’s relationship with her son (“K”) from his birth to his “socialization” when he acquires speech and writing skills. PPD would also “analyze the reciprocity of the process of socialization of mother and child.”(2) In Kelly’s analysis (Lacanian), her son defines her as much as she defines him through “mothering.”

A mother’s labor is generally ignored in Western culture since it occurs in the private realm outside of the capitalist sphere. To categorize the job of the mother “as essential and biological is to naturalize this labor, placing it outside of social conditions.”(3) Kelly’s PPD contradicts this categorization and does much to “de-naturalize” the idea of motherhood through her theoretical position.

Theoretical feminism denies that femininity is determined fully through biology but is a social construction of the subject positing instead that a woman's essence exists within the actions and language of her private world, as she (the subject) is bound within her familial and social identity as “mother.” Thus, PPD encapsulates the anti-essentialist position that would continue to gain prominence among the work of other artists and critics during the late 1970’s (Cindy Sherman, Victor Burgin, Laura Mulvey), work that would concern how gender and identity were constructed through representation.

An undertaking of genuine complexity and accomplishment, PPD yields its rewards yet individual artifacts can be perplexing and arcane. After all, it was Kelly’s absorption of Lacan that prompted her utilization of the “Lacanian algebra” as additional texts and graphs within PPD.(4) Still, faux scientific babble gives way to earnest anxieties as Ma Kelly worries about K’s unpredictable rages:

“K’s aggressiveness has resurfaced and made me feel anxious about going to work. I can’t count the number of ‘small wounds’ I’ve got as the result of his throwing, kicking, biting etc. . . I’m not the only object of his wrath but I’m probably the source. Maybe I should stay at home. . . but we need the money.”

This is a key passage that ironically interjects the public sphere of capitalism into the Kelly Household. Ma has taken a job. And where’s Papa? Again, this journal entry requires further re-assessment and a closer reading on our part. Does the introduction of Ma Kelly as public laborer negate her project’s artistic purity? And is the putative Papa complicit in this transmutation of private mother-wife to public artist-worker?

Kelly would later refer to her work as "my archaeology of the everyday."(5) It is an everyday that encompasses those two different worlds of labor – the domestic and the artistic – and a document that “interrogates the boundaries between public and private realms of experience.”(6) Moreover, taking her inspiration from Moira Gatens’ Feminism and Philosophy, Helen Molesworth has stated that Kelly’s “introduction of the problem of such labor leads, in turn, to a consideration of the relations between public and private, which emerges as a defining issue in the discussion of 1970s art and the legacy of feminism’s intervention in it.”(7)

Image: © Copyright by Mary Kelly.


1. See previous post on Kelly and PPD.

2. From the Generali Foundation site.

3. Molesworth, Helen. From “House Work and Art Work” in Art After Conceptual Art, Alexander Alberro and Sabeth Buchmann, eds., Vienna, 2006, 77.

4. Macey, David. Critical Theory, London, 2000, 223. [Lacan’s later work contained “quasi-mathematical formulae” that were to be used as teaching devices “designed to ensure that psychoanalytic theory can be subjected to a formalization and to guarantee its integral transmission.”]

5. Kelly, Mary. Post Partum Document, London, 1985, xvi.

6. Op. cit., 77.

7. Op. cit., 71.

October 4, 2007

The Matter of Immateriality

The focus on materiality and the form an art object would or could take underwent a transformative period during the late 1960’s. The work of Robert Barry, Lawrence Weiner and Bernard Venet each would explore the tendency of matter to transmit both determinate and indeterminate meanings.

Robert Barry’s experiments with gases like argon and helium reveal his evident fascination with the idea that the use of certain materials as “art” can show us that art need not be visible. If the Modernist ideology suggested that art should be reduced to its materials, its medium specificity (see Clement Greenberg), then artists like Barry were engaging the conceptual dimension of materiality. In creating actions like Inert Gas Series (1969) where he released 2 cubic feet of helium (“a material that is imperceivable”) in the Mojave Desert to “infinite expansion”(1), Barry points out that visuality is irrelevant to art and art could be as much about invisible physio-chemical constituents. Interestingly, Barry’s “theoretical entities” require indication through language since they were “invisible” to the naked eye. Unlike a lot of conceptual art of the period, Barry’s actions were not merely linguistic “events” whose “existence” relies on eye witness accounts or other documentation but were materially actual events that express the conceptual dimension of materiality in art.

Lawrence Weiner had also proposed that the material properties of the art object were becoming obsolete. His “36" x 36" removal to the lathing or support wall of plaster or wall-board from a wall” was a witty reversal of the additive logic used in constructing an art object.(2) His legendary Statements would determine the materiality of the artwork yet the work “need not be built” to become art. This seemingly dead-pan neutrality predicts an indeterminacy in art’s “spatio-temporal specification” and yet further envisioned conceptual art as both “timeless and placeless.”(3) Like Sol Lewitt, Weiner would not require fabrication for the idea to become art but Weiner insisted that his ideas became “pieces” when he described them in words, i.e., when they became linguistically determinate.(4)

A similar interest (or disinterest) in the determination of meaning in art can be found in the work of Bernard Venet. Besides his remarkable series of Indeterminate Line sculptures, which elicit an expressivity which appears to contradict their conceptual basis, his iconic Heap of Coal (1963) used raw matter not to convey form but as form itself. His resolute pile of coal chunks presented its indeterminacy without composition or ordering by the artist to convey anything other than the specifics of coal - how the material behaves. Venet has revealed his interest in the semiologist Jacques Bertin and his graphic sign-systems, particularly the monosemic sign which is strictly denotative and whose meaning is not determined through interpretation. Bertin’s monosemy is a kind of tautology and thus similar to the analytic proposition of Alfred J. Ayer(5) whose work would have profound influence on Joseph Kosuth. In conversation with Carter Ratcliff in 1998, Venet noted that the monosemic sign “offers but one semantic level” that permitted him “to leave the field of the expressive image and to investigate that of the rational image.”(6)

A code that might provide for the pure function of the transmission of a message, like a mathematics formula, understandably seduced and intrigued conceptual artists. Whether their messages (or ideas) were actually constructed or fabricated, or even written down in words, it was their ready interest in creating artworks with varying levels of determinacy and indeterminacy that provoked charges that conceptual art was engaged in a “dematerialization” of the object. Yet it would remain clear that materiality was not required to convey an idea:

“That is, the idea is ‘read about’ rather than ‘looked at.’ That some art should be directly material and that other art should produce a material entity only as a necessary by-product of the need to record the idea is not at all to say that the latter is connected by any process of dematerialization to the former.”(7)

Image: Heap of Coal © Copyright by Bernar Venet.


1. Meyer, Ursula. Conceptual Art, New York, 1972, 38.

2. Celant, Germano. Art Povera, New York, 1969, 83.

3. Osborne, Peter. Conceptual Art,, London, 2002, 30-31.

4. Ibid., 31.

5. “. . a proposition is analytic when its validity depends solely on the definitions of the symbols it contains. . .”; from Ayers' Language, Truth and Logic, New York, 1952, 78.

6. Ratcliff, Carter. “Bernar Venet” in Sculpture Magazine, Vol. 18, No. 2, March 1999.

7. Atkinson, Terry. Letter to Lucy Lippard and John Chandler concerning their article “The Dematerialization of Art”, reprinted in Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology by Alexander Alberro, Cambridge, 1999, 52-58.

September 27, 2007

Conceptual Process

Is Card File by Robert Morris the “first ‘purely’ conceptual work of art?”(1) At least two art theorists have weighed in on this 1962 artwork’s self-reflexive character and its “predominately linguistic nature”(2) that continues the inexorable attack on objects, “seeming to parody the modernist obsession with the autonomy of the art object.”(3)

The 44 index cards contained in the file document the “steps the artist followed in the conception and making of the work”(3) by using another system of representation, i.e., language. The linguistic advantage would be thoroughly exploited by others fairly quickly (Yoko Ono, Mel Ramsden, Joseph Kosuth, Lawrence Weiner, John Baldessari). Yet Card File subtly introduced another art concept that would remain somewhat dormant for a few years before erupting as process.

That the form of Card File is fully manifested through the process undertaken by Morris in its conception and making is clearly the essential element of the work. We understand the artist’s intention to be the documentation of a pre-conceived idea for an artwork through a series of actions and “thought processes” which result in the production of the work.

I absolutely concur that this work is indeed exemplary within proto-conceptual history and that it indicates the importance of process in the future development of the form that art would take. However, I must remind my fellow art theorists that Duchamp’s readymades paved the way for all post-Duchampian “assisted” readymades. Therefore, I nominate Marcel’s In Advance of a Broken Arm (the snow shovel readymade) as the first “purely” conceptual artwork. Predating Morris’s Card File by nearly fifty years, Duchamp's snow shovel (along with the Bicycle Wheel and Fountain) unveils the basic premise of art’s institutionalization as flawed or, at the very least, suspect. Duchamp proposed that the definition of art relied fully on its context and this is the initial thrust which later propeled Morris, Piero Manzoni and even Bob Rauschenberg to thier unnerving acts of conceptualism.(5)

Parenthetically, I wonder if the Centre Georges Pompidou allows visitor interaction with Card File whenever it’s shown? If not and they exhibit it in one of those hermetically-sealed and compulsory glass display case, then I respectfully ask Robert Morris to draft another of his legal documents officially withdrawing “all aesthetic quality and content”(6) from Card File. Its systemic relevance is best accessed by a participatory experience, therefore, as just another “art object” under institutional control it is effectively neutered under glass.

Image: Card File (1962); metal and plastic wall file mounted on wood, containing 44 index cards; © Copyright by Robert Morris.

1. Osborne, Peter. Conceptual Art,, London, 2002, 68.

2. Ibid., 68.

3. Wood, Paul. Conceptual Art,, New York, 2002, 26.

4. Op. cit., 68.

5. Rauschenberg’s famous declarative telegram that asserts, “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so,” thus extending the definition of what constitutes art begun by Duchamp.

6. “Statement of Esthetic Withdrawal” was Morris’ legal declaration that he had rescinded the “aesthetic quality and content” from the Litanies artwork after payment had not been received from the purchaser, Philip Johnson.

September 20, 2007

A Stretcher Named Desire

Whether it was Ad Reinhardt’s space as the “elimination of color,” or the anticipatory and subtle “presence” of Anne Truitt’s monochromatic slabs, the art being made by “late Modern” American abstractionists of the heady 1950’s had a bold breakaway feel of “the last advanced painting.” But a 23-year-old New Yorker named Frank Stella would shrink the gap between the literal shape (of the stretcher) and the “depicted” shape within the painting’s framing edge. It was his brash and impassioned consideration and heroic pursuit of an interdependent image to object that would stress the relationship of image and object as a unified thing.

Stella accomplished this simply through process. In his mind, the older ideas “about relational painting, i.e. the balancing of the various parts of the painting with and against each other” were “problems which had to be faced.” His “solution” was to eliminate “illusionistic space out of a painting at constant intervals by using a regulated pattern.”(1) His “regulated pattern” involved a “house painter’s” brush of a certain width and a single color (mostly and best with black) and Stella’s methodology delivered a series of paintings that although inherently featuring “stripes” have come to be called the “black paintings”. The stripes appear to be generated by the framing edges of the canvas and its support and yet also relate to the edges through Stella’s harmonious and logical solution of process.

“What the evidence shows is that in 1958 Stella painted himself into and out of a world, a body of work so complete that he could turn his back on it. This doesn’t seem like a phase, but rather a defining moment when Stella learned that he did not want to do what he could do, and went on to paint the black and gray pinstriped and notched paintings that, by the end of 1959, had secured him representation by Leo Castelli and a place in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.”(2)

Through his reinforcement of the stretcher shape Stella provided the history of painting with a new method of structuring the content of the work that is wholly based on the shape of the support. In other words, the shape determined the structure and this was “arrived at” through his “regulated pattern” of brushworked logic. Stella’s radical use of the literal over the depicted would invest painting with a new radicality and energy that would carry it through the next decade. Moreover, his solution of using a process to determine the art object’s form would surface again during the “process art” of the Anti-Form movement, ironically itself a reaction to the Minimal Art that Stella helped to create.

UPDATE: Image deleted by unknown person or entity. (Sorry, Frank!)
UP-UPDATE: Replaced image: Stella painting in his studio, 1959; photographer unknown.


1. Selz, Peter, and Kristine Stiles, ed. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, Berkeley, 1996, 114.

2. Corbett, William, Frank Stella 1958, Brooklyn Rail, March 2006.

September 13, 2007

Transaction Voided

“Having rejected nothingness, I discovered the void. The meaning of the immaterial pictorial zones, extracted from the depth of the void which by that time was of a very material order. Finding it unacceptable to sell these immaterial zones for money, I insisted in exchange for the highest quality of the immaterial, the highest quality of material payment — a bar of pure gold. Incredible as it may seem, I have actually sold a number of these pictorial immaterial states . . . Painting no longer appeared to me to be functionally related to the gaze, since during the blue monochrome period of 1957 I became aware of what I called the pictorial sensibility. This pictorial sensibility exists beyond our being and yet belongs in our sphere. We hold no right of possession over life itself. It is only by the intermediary of our taking possession of sensibility that we are able to purchase life. Sensibility enables us to pursue life to the level of its base material manifestations, in the exchange and barter that are the universe of space, the immense totality of nature.”(1)

When Yves Klein wrote these words in his “Chelsea Hotel Manifesto” in 1961, he was possibly still despondent over the theatrical release of Gualtiero Jacopetti’s “shockumentary” Mondo Cane, an inane and exploitative pseudo-documentary that was supposed to feature one of Klein’s infamous Anthropométrie de l'Époque bleue performance works. Yves apparently had been misled into believing that his “actions” featuring nude models swathed in his signature “International Klein Blue (IKB)” would have a respectable position within the film. The Walker Art Center’s Philippe Vergne has noted that it was Klein’s “mistaken belief that the filmmaker would do for him what Hans Namuth did for Jackson Pollock, what Henri-Georges Clouzot did for Picasso.” The resultant film barely touches on Klein and his visionary performance is sandwiched somewhere between savage hog slaughter and New Zealand mating habits.

Klein died of a heart attack a year after writing his manifesto. Yet his prophetic art paved the way for the conceptual art to come and continues to provide unique theoretical ground to explore. One of his most significant contributions to conceptualism is the idea of these “immaterial pictorial sensibility zones” which he “exhibited” and “actually sold.” Klein describes the “sensible pictorial state” in 1959:

“With this endeavor I desire to create, establish and present to the public a sensible pictorial state within the limits of an exhibition gallery for ordinary paintings. In other words, to create an ambiance, a pictorial climate which is invisible, but present in the spirit of what Delacroix in his journal calls ‘the indefinable,’ which he considers as the very essence of painting. The invisible pictorial state of the space in the gallery should in every respect be what has so far been offered as the best definition of painting in general, that is, invisible and intangible radiance.”(2)

The year before, Klein had spent forty-eight hours alone within Galerie Iris Clert painting the walls white. When this exhibition opened, there was nothing to see but Le Vide, or The Void, and chaos ensued as gallery visitors searched in vain for the “art.” Klein believed his physical act of painting the walls white had not only removed all visual emphasis on art as an “object” but that the gallery had been imbued with “immateriality.”

Klein further extends this “conceptual logic” in his “Ritual for the Relinquishment of the Immaterial Pictorial Sensitivity Zones” that virtually outline how a transfer of the “ownership” of said “zone” would be “relinquished against a certain weight of fine gold.”(3) It was this transaction of gold from new “owner” to Klein that seemingly authenticated the immateriality of the “work” as art, although “there was no proof that they had ever owned the invisible work. The making, purchase and ownership of the work of art had become a mystery, or ritual.”(4)

“Every possible buyer of an immaterial pictorial sensitivity zone must realize that the fact that he accepts a receipt for the price which he has payed takes away all authentic immaterial value from the work, although it is in his possession.”(5)

Because the putative “ownership” of the “immaterial” work of art is both authenticated and negated by a transaction or exchange of gold, Klein offers us two insights concerning art; art is not necessarily wedded to materiality, and the transaction focuses attention on art’s exchange value. Thus, Klein further complicates and elaborates upon earlier Twentieth Century ideas concerning art’s definition begun by Duchamp.

Klein’s introduction of “immateriality” and “ownership” into the discourse of art has been relatively overlooked as his blue monochromes and anthropometries have taken center stage. It would become quite clear in later conceptual art of the 1960’s that art can be as intangible as an idea. Lucy Lippard believed that conceptual art enacted nothing less than a de-materialization of the art object. There is also recent conjecture that the immateriality of Klein’s work is identical to the aura of Klein himself: “In 'Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility,' it is the aura of Klein which is being sold and exhibited, rather than a painting, drawing or sculpture.”(6)

This may perhaps misinterpret Walter Benjamin’s clarification of the aura of a work of art when he wrote: “It is significant that the existence of the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function. In other words, the unique value of the ‘authentic’ work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value.”(7)

We ought not confuse Klein’s conceptualization of the immateriality of “art” with the “spell of the personality.” Klein’s genius was to position the “work” of art as both a commodity and conceptual “object” by conferring an exchange value on an intangible “idea” through a ritual transaction. This presumably would reinvest the art object with its intrinsic yet frequently “lost” use value.

Image: Yves Klein and Dino Buzzati transact a "Ritual" on January 26, 1962. © Copyright by Yves Klein Archives.

1. Klein, Yves. “Chelsea Hotel Manifesto”, 1961.

2. Klein, Yves. “Conference de la Sorbonne, June 3, 1959,” reprinted by Editions Galerie Montaigne, 1992.

3. Selz, Peter, and Kristine Stiles, ed. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, Berkeley, 1996, 81.

4. Godfrey, Tony. Conceptual Art, London, 2004, 81.

5. Op. cit.

6. Grant, Jennifer. “Yves Klein's Zones of Immaterial Space: The Questioning of Ownership, Exhibition and Aura”.

7. Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1935, 5.

September 6, 2007

Villeglé's Re-contextualized Meaning

The mid-Twentieth Century work of décollagist Jacques Villeglé (often in collaboration with Raymond Hains) provides a glimpse into appropriation as both technique and art movement. Forgetting for the moment 1980’s appropriation art (Levine, Kruger, Pettibone, Sturtevant, et al., after the seeds of citation sown by Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg and Johns), Villeglé’s earlier “use” of posters torn from Parisian walls signaled a bold intervention into the “social order” that further disrupted the fragile aesthetics of visuality that were under siege by the 1950’s.

Abstract expressionism had already peaked in the New York School and other ideas about how to extend abstraction were undergoing intense analysis in multiple quarters. The “unconscious” mark or the random incidents of chance were notable art theories of resolute effectiveness but were beginning to lose their avant garde sheen. Meanwhile in post-war Paris, Villeglé had already begun to relocate his “art practice” into the urban space. As Benjamin Buchloh quite aptly notes, Villeglé would join Simon Hantai, Mimmo Rotella and others from the Nouveaux Réalistes group to discover new ways to create “designs outside of an author’s intentional composition.”(1)

In an urban environment littered both literally and figuratively with the detritus of consumerist desire, Villeglé would appropriate the previously vandalized “propaganda” of cinema and theatre posters, play-bills and product advertisements by cutting whole jagged and ripped areas off the Parisian walls to use as his “medium” to construct “paintings.” Villegelé’s brilliance was to seize upon the implicit violence of these vandalized posters, torn with contempt by nocturnal, roving bands of disaffected urban youth, wrenching the fragmented images and letters from their “street” context to re-codify them as “high” culture through his singular actions.

Villeglé’s relevance to art history is not only his “borrowed” chromatic forms that clearly function as structural ambiguity within a two-dimensional frame. Rather, it is his re-framing of the “signs” in a “new realism” that disintegrates and erases both visuality and conventional semantics. Villeglé toyed with these raw signifiers, re-siting the images and words of advertising from the “rightful” gaze of consumers, to create a brutal and ritual “negation.” It is a negation not only of desire but of meaning as well, as his re-contextualized works evoke a multiplicity of meanings beyond their previous capitalist incantations.

Image: 66, Rue de Vaugirard - bas Meudon, 28 mai 1990, décollage mounted on canvas, © Copyright by Jacques Villeglé.

1. Buchloh, Benjamin. Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry, Cambridge and London, 2000, 245.

August 24, 2007

A Conceptual Act

During the long dog days of Summer '08, dominated as they have been by Richard Serra’s retrospective and Martin Creed’s self-conscious ‘Stylistic Conceptual Art’ (classification courtesy of Professor Joseph Kosuth) at the Center for Collegiate Studies, one virtual footnote might have escaped your surfdom. ArtNet’s German site first picked it up, and condensed a brief English mention of an artist rights law suit which poses that intriguing question, ‘Where does the copyright protection of a work of art begin?’

Briefly, a conceptual artist named Ayse Erkmen has claimed that Berlin-based conceptual artist Peter Friedl had stolen her idea of using a taxidermied giraffe in an art installation. Friedl’s piece, The Zoo Story, made it to Documenta 12 this summer so Erkmen began legal proceedings to prohibit him from using an ‘idea’ she claims to have had in 2004. Erkmen apparently ‘conceived’ a plan to ‘borrow’ a stuffed giraffe - and other stuffed animals from the Qalqiliyah Zoo in Palestine that had been originally killed in an Israeli bomb attack in the 2002 Intifada - for a proposed installation in Birmingham. Erkmen’s installation was not mounted due to ‘political and organizational difficulties,’ thus her ‘idea’ was never realized.

The regional court of Kassel promptly dismissed Erkmen’s injunction request against Friedl and Documenta 12 on grounds that ideas, in Germany as in the United States, are not protected by copyright. Even more interesting is the wording of the court document, which goes on to include the pronouncement that Friedl’s artwork - ‘giraffe-as-found-object’ - was essentially ‘a conceptual act.’ Putatively paraphrased at length [my German is non-existent but Google translates] on ArtNet’s Deutsch site, the court claims that ‘the giraffe is a ready larva – a found object, which is shifted into the art context, in order to steer the focus there on a certain question.’ And still more problematic: ‘This discrepancy becomes particularly apparent with such works of art, which do not experience an individual artistic organization by the hand of their author.’

Thereby, the regional court smartly absolved itself from making a further ‘statement to the artistic value of Erkmen’s or Friedl’s respective ideas.’ The court finally allowed that given that this particular ‘artistic interference takes place in the case of the transport of a giraffe from Palestine into a European art area on [a] purely conceptual level’ then ‘it does not lie with the judge to rise to the [position of] art critic by expressing itself for the artistic relevance of a work.’

For his part, Peter Friedl replied that ‘so far still NOBODY asked me in this thing per (sic) something over history [of] the ’zoo story.’ He goes on to give March 17, 2003 as the initial germination date of his ‘idea’ and suggests that in the art world’s ‘standard situations’ there is more artistic ‘competition.’ As for the litigating conceptualist: ‘Mrs. Erkmen, whom I do not know.’

Well and good, yet several alarming scenarios present themselves and perhaps new ‘tactics’ must be undertaken to protect one’s ‘ideas’ in this increasingly complex ‘art world.’ Certainly there is no reason to doubt Friedl’s claim to ‘not know’ the other conceptual artist, however, Erkmen felt herself sufficiently maligned and tried to legally stop the other installation. Which seems to leave us with two distinct possibilities: Friedl could have learned, either consciously or unconsciously, of Erkmen’s idea through the ‘grapevine’ of art world gossip, or simply had a similar conception at the same time.

Historically speaking, ‘ideas’ have been expressed simultaneously in art with the principals having no knowledge of one another’s actions. The most salient example would be the sites of prehistoric cave drawings found in multiple locations, works occurring prior to global communication ability. More recently, we might look at the global development of abstract painting in simultaneity by Hans Hartung, George Mathieu, Pollock and the Gutai Group.

Which leaves the ‘grapevine’ theory and a somewhat paranoiac conclusion: if artists develop a conceptual idea then said idea should be protected through self-awareness. The concept ought to remain safely within the interiority of the artist’s mind until such time as its conception can be made manifest. Drawings and proposals, of course, could be rendered with proper copyright protections to establish authenticity, precedence and provenance.

40 years ago, two earlier, originary conceptual artists like Joseph Kosuth and Sol Lewitt had clearly indicated the direction ‘ideas’ were taking. In his 1967 essay, ‘'Notes on Conceptual Art and Models', Kosuth said, ‘All I make are models. The actual works of art are ideas. Rather than 'ideals' the models are a visual approximation of a particular art object I have in mind.’ In Lewitt’s Sentences on Conceptual Art, written in 1968, he states, ‘Ideas alone can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All ideas need not be made physical.’

If the early conceptualists truly ‘envisioned the finished artwork as simply the realization of an initial idea that could be executed by an anonymous fabricator’ (1), then it would seem that Erkmen should not be so displeased with Friedl’s ‘execution’ of her idea – provided he acknowledged her ‘idea’ and perhaps shared credit and accolades with her. If this is the ‘test case’ finally for ‘conceptual acts’ then the courts need to take a lengthier and scholarly review, with not only precedence and history as guiding criteria, but also engaging in discourse with the founding proponents of conceptual art. Kosuth is alive (60) and teaching. Victor Burgin, Mel Bochner, and Terry Atkinson – all could be brought in for their consultation on conceptual art, ‘idea’ protection, documentation and ‘ownership.’

Perhaps in these mercurial times, with millisecond downloads amidst our media-saturated and icon-driven culture, artists have every reason to be circumspect with their ideas. This renewed sense of privacy and protectiveness with regard to ‘ideas’ might even yield the beneficial re-deployment of ‘mind’ and a return to self-reflexivity to activate an interior discursivity.

Image: The Zoo Story, Copyright 2007 by Peter Friedl.

1. Wollen, Peter. Global Conceptualism and North American Conceptual Art, New York, 1999, 77-78.

August 19, 2007

R.I.P. Max Roach (1924-2007)

"Max Roach
treads that fine line between anticipation and reaction which distinguishes the true accompanist. His playing on this track is a wonderful example of how to interact without being obtrusive, at the same time commenting on virtually every phrase that floats by. Each component of the drum set can be brought to the forefront to accentuate any of Roach’s sophisticated patterns. Moreover, there is the pure joy in swinging and pacing the solos that is unique to his playing at this time".

- from Loren Schoenberg’s liner notes to Savoy Records’ The Genius of Charlie Parker.

July 12, 2007


Artist's Reception: Thursday, 19 July, 2007.

Image: MCB working on A practice that definitively involves presence; © Copyright 2007 by Mark Cameron Boyd.

May 31, 2007

Performance Simulacra: Reenactment as (Re)Authoring

It has now become an urgent matter to re-assert the original focus and conception of performance as a contemporary art practice. Current essays concerning the "cultural phenomenon of reenactments" express a somewhat relaxed critical approach to performance art, proposing that it is capable of "challenging and reassigning the authorial agency of the (re)performed works."(1) As such views proliferate through contemporary art's discourse, I fear they may whittle away at performance art as first presented in the 1970’s and eventually erode its ontology as an art practice.

As a practice, performance art is characterized by the ephemeral yet is distinctly marked by two features that also qualify as criteria for evaluation: duration and presence. As I have previously written, "The performance act is time-based certainly, and thus expresses itself in the duration of those actions by the performer(s), and our focus is on the physical body (presence) of the performance artist(s)."

An art practice that definitively involves presence, often inextricably linked to place, a performance art work is positioned temporally between beginning and end points. The actions of performance are overtly related to the corpus and this body engenders the performative (possibly psychic) experience. That performance is concerned exclusively with the body has provoked a fixation on language as insufficient to describe, critique or discuss it, given that performance reflects a transition from "grammar of the word" to "grammar of the body."(2) To reveal this as a misapprehension of performance, we need only recall that the conceptual foundation of this late 20th Century visual art practice projects performance as a document that defies inscription.

One of the default texts on performance states: "Performance art usually occurs in the suspension between the 'real' physical matter of 'the performing body' and the psychic experience of what is to be embodied. . . Performance boldly and precariously declares that Being is performed (and made temporarily visible) in that suspended in-between."(3)

Additionally, from the same author: "To the degree that performance attempts to enter the economy of reproduction it betrays and lessens the promise of its own ontology. . . Performance is the attempt to value that which is nonreproductive, nonmetaphorical."(4)

Disconcertingly, the above Peggy Phelan quote (from her "go-to" performance text) was reprinted in Robert Blackson’s otherwise scholarly essay, "Once More. . . With Feeling: Reenactment in Contemporary Culture", in defense of the Marina Abramović performance series Seven Easy Pieces (2005). That Blackson gives Abramović carte blanche to "potentially eclipse the works she reenacted"(5) is all the more shocking when one considers Abramović’s own characterization of her Seven Easy Pieces series:

"My version will be exactly as the piece was, but as a very long duration piece."(6)

Apparently, Abramović had not read Phelan’s text. If she had, she would undoubtedly see the inherent contradiction in her mistaking a reenactment of a performance as "exact" yet "longer." As we recall, a performance piece relates to a particular duration of an action occurring in a particular space. Thus, to reenact, for Abramović, seems to involve scant allegiance to the original time-based actions of the original performer who created the piece.(7)

This may be incidental to some critics but I find it to be irretrievably damaging to performance as a continuing art practice. Before we grant "open license" to future artists to "re-create" or "emulate" historic (iconic) performances, then we must define the fundamental differences between reenactments and recreations. Moreover, it would be a disservice to the founding tenets of performance to allow these reenactments to be judged under the laboriously retroactive critique of "taste."

Performance art is time-based yet as originally conceived it presents its ontology as beyond documentation. To visually document art is indeed daunting. James Elkins contends that:

"Visual documentation, whether it is video or photography, brings with it an ideology and an aesthetic which prevent it from functioning simply as evidence. . .The visual becomes suspect: it is no longer evidential, but contentious. . . Performance art is, in this sense, immune from the danger of being reduced to documentary evidence."(8)

This is of little concern for Blackson, as he believes that the "loose translation of eyewitness memory and historical documentation" of Seven Easy Pieces permits "the possibilities for and acceptance of reenactments that intentionally differ from their sources."(9)

We can at least remain indebted to Blackson for proffering a somewhat debatable (working) definition of reenactment as "a creative act." However, he seems conflicted as he realizes that reenactments are "slowly eroding the need for accountability to an original source" and yet still contain "the possibility for new experiences and histories to emerge."(10) It is this denial of the original, this re-casting previously enacted performances as "new experiences", that introduces the final thorny summation of reenactments like Abramović’s as weak copies, drained of their specific time-based authenticity, that transform performance into vapid simulacra to re-place the "real" Being of the original work.


1. Blackson, Robert. Art Journal, Vol. 66, No. 1 (Spring 2007): 39.

2. Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, Routledge, London, 1993, 150.

3. Ibid., 167-168.

4. Ibid., 146-152.

5. Op. cit., 39.

6. Moulton, Alan. Flash Art 38, No. 244 (October 2005): 89.

7. Unquestionably, Abramović is an artist of intensity and intelligence when she is performing her own works. From the Guggenheim Museum: "In 'Rhythm O,' she invited her audience to do whatever they wanted to her using any of the 72 items she provided: pen, scissors, chains, axe, loaded pistol, and others. This essay in submission was played out to chilling conclusions—the performance ceased when audience members grew too aggressive."


9. Op. cit., 40.

10. Op. cit., 40.